You may not have heard ofa "hero piece" before, but you'd know one if you saw one. It's the item within a seasonal collection that makes people stop, stare, copy and covet. The "hero" is the sartorial equivalent of a good-looking boyfriend: it makes you feel good, and is made more appealing because you know everyone else wants it too. It's Kate Moss's pansy-print blouse for Topshop, which sold out the same day it hit the stores, or Roland Mouret's Galaxy dress, as seen on Posh Spice and Demi Moore. The British designer, and supplier of It-bags to the A-list, Anya Hindmarch designates one item a hero in every range she unveils.
There's a reason hero pieces become so sought-after. As Rebekka May, the creative director of COS, a Swedish high-street chain that specialises in modern, minimal clothes, explains, "A hero piece tends to have a classic reference in cut or quality, but also a strong fashionable edge. That's what makes it a hero for the season and not just an overnight fling."
So, as the January sales finally dwindle, tired winter stock finally makes way for the eagerly awaited spring/summer lines. Last week was the first of what are known as "drop weeks", when new stock begins to arrive in-store and shoppers start thinking about longer daylight hours and the possibility of peeling off a layer or two. It's around now that the heroes start to make their presence known. Topshop's denim pinafore is a good example: dropping this month, it combines classic shape and bohemian charm with up-to-date and urban stonewash denim, set to be one of the biggest trends of this summer's 1980s revival. It's also something of a chameleon – try layering with different T-shirts and underskirts to give it a more eclectic look – and works well with short sleeves, long sleeves, tights or bare legs. Wielded correctly, a hero can reinvigorate the rest of a wardrobe.
This type of sartorial multitasking is not to be sniffed at, given recent shifts in our spending abilities. The hero may have more substance but it's not going to hit your wallet where it hurts. Take Jigsaw's striped Breton-style top, for example. For a little over £30 you get a staple beloved for many a season now. Or Gap's new skinny flare, the gentler sister of the ubiquitous skinny jean, "They're the ultimate leg-lengthener," claims the store's Anita Borzyszkowska. With change from £40 who can complain?
Other hero pieces are versions of classic shapes reinvented with unusual colouring or detailing. The high street may be awash with classic trenches right now, but it's Reiss's silvery-lilac version that stands out.
The hero at Banana Republic this season also looks like a winner. A platinum, draped goddess dress, made from silk jersey. The sporty fabric once again stops it getting too black tie, so you're buying an elegant cocktail dress, a laid-back sundress and a throw-on beach cover-up all in one. This hero's superpowers lie in the styling; as the brand's new creative director Simon Kneen points out, "It has the look of modern couture at an affordable price point – who doesn't want that?" We all do – and that's why these pieces are heroes among clothes.
1. Skinny flares, Gap, £39.50, tel: 0800 427 789
A modern, more forgiving alternative to the harshness of drainpipe jeans. "These are incredibly flattering," claims Gap's Anita Borzyszkowska. "They work well with a blazer or a boyfriend cardigan, and have a simple, timeless style that's relevant to this season and beyond."
2. Goddess dress, Banana Republic, £140, tel: 020 7758 3550
This works beautifully either in a bar or on a beach. "The economic climate has changed," says Banana Republic's creative director, Simon Kneen. "Bling and brash is out, subtle and sophisticated is in. A hero piece is so much more versatile when it's a modern take on a well-loved classic."
3. Stonewash pinafore, Topshop, £50, www.topshop.com
The 1980s denim revival is everywhere right now, from London's House of Holland to the catwalks at super-luxe French house Balmain. It's a tricky trend to pull off – especially if you were there first time round – but this pinafore is a classic shape which can be easily dressed up or down with layers and accessories.
4. Jersey jacket, COS, £79, www.cosstores.com
A grey jacket with deconstructed sleeves made from a super-modern fabric toned down slightly by the uncomplicated finish. "Customers want pieces that are on-trend without being faddish," says COS's creative director, Rebekka May. "The sleeve in combination with the basic sweat fabric makes it feel less serious, but it works equally well dressed up as part of a suit, or dressed down with a slouchy T-shirt and jeans."
5. Lilac trench, Reiss, £225, www.reiss.co.uk
A cool update of a staple that will never go out of fashion. "This is one statement item that stands out from the range as a must-have," explains Reiss's Emma Whitehair. "It can be a trend piece or a classic piece but always just feels exactly right for that particular season." This take on the classic mac is a spring essential.
6. Striped Breton top, Jigsaw, £34, www.jigsaw.co.uk
One of Jigsaw's key pieces this season. A modern classic which channels instant chic and insouciance. Wear with jeans and shorts or pep it up with a mannish blazer. This is a transeasonal treasure – you'll find yourself layering it under dresses or over T-shirts in cooler weather.